Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 18]

Spec scripts, that is. I'm guessing that perhaps 90% of the people who follow this blog at some point in their lives will write a spec script. And the other 10% are involved in buying and selling them. In light of that fact, last year I interviewed a top manager and some Hollywood screenwriters about the ins and outs of what is involved in bringing a spec script to market. I've been waiting for the right opportunity to do something with that inside information, so when Vanity Fair recently came out with this article — When the Spec Script was King — a decent piece, but pretty surface level, I figured this is as good a time as any to dig into the subject in a comprehensive fashion.

In Part 1, we looked at the genesis of the spec script in Hollywood from 1900-1942.

In Part 2, we covered the emergence of the spec script market from 1942-1990.

In Part 3, we analyzed the Boom / Bust / Boom / Bust cycle of the spec script market.

In Part 4, we surveyed the buyers, both major studios and financiers.

In Part 5, we examined the screenwriter-rep relationship in terms of developing a spec script.

In Part 6, we explored rolling out a new writer's spec script.

In Part 7, we delved into the subject of attaching producers.

In Part 8, we considered the value of attaching talent.

In Part 9, we learned about reps wanting to "own all the tickets".

In Part 10, we dug into how reps generate buzz for a spec script.

In Part 11, we scrutinized the practice of slipping a script to someone.

In Part 12, we acknowledged the role that serendipity can play in the process.

In Part 13, we discussed the strategy of targeting specific buyers.

In Part 14, we drilled down into the strategy of going wide.

In Part 15, we indulged in the ultimate fantasy of a bidding war.

In Part 16, we got a first-hand account of a preemptive purchase.

In Part 17, we thought about one creative choice to write what they're buying.

Part 18: Sell Them Your Dream

For the first 16 parts of this series, we have taken a comprehensive look at the spec script market. Okay. Now what do you do with that information and insight?

Let's consider this a response to a reader question because I get this type of inquiry pretty regularly from aspiring screenwriters. It takes different forms:

What type of stories should I focus on writing for my spec script?

I have a lot of story ideas: How do I know which one to write as a spec?

What's the best approach to take to maximize my chance of selling a spec script to Hollywood?

There is no one right answer. Even if there was and I gave it to you, you can be certain you would open the trades tomorrow to read a story about some writer who came along and did precisely the opposite, and just sold a spec for six figures.

That said broadly speaking, there are two basic paths an aspiring screenwriter can take when writing a spec script.

The most obvious approach is this: Write what they're buying. We explored that last week. If you haven't read it here, you should before continuing.

But what if your interests run to independent type movies. Or you just don't want to track the marketplace and would rather just write your own stuff precisely the way you want to write.

In that case, you're choosing an alternate path, one I call: Sell Them Your Dream.

At its core, this is about believing passionately in yourself as a writer and specifically your own unique vision of the world in combination with your ability to translate that perspective into a story. You watch movies, you analyze scripts, you read books, the same basic practices any aspiring screenwriter should follow, but it's all about providing fodder for your creative instincts.

It's Tarantino writing Reservoir Dogs. It's Soderbergh writing Sex, Lies and Videotape. It's Kaufman writing Being John Malkovich. It's Joel and Ethan Coen writing The Big Lebowski.

Think of these two approaches in terms of Hollywood's mantra re acquisitions, how the studios want something 'similar but different.'

The Write What They're Buying path is more about being similar.

The Sell Them Your Dream path is more about being different.

If you do go this latter route, two pieces of advice: (1) Write a script with budget in mind. A $ 5M project is easier to get made than a $ 50M movie. Better yet, why not aim for a $ 1M movie? Funding is a big goddammed deal when it comes to getting an indie movie made with any chance of recouping the investment, so think smart and write low. Budget, that is. (2) Write key characters who name actors would kill to play. Many top actors like to vary their work: Take a big picture to pay the bills, then do a small indie feature to sink their teeth into a fascinating character and story.

As to which path to take, my advice? Go off by yourself for a day. Take a good honest look at your skills, what you bring to the table as a writer. Consider your creativity, how it works. Pay special attention to what types of movies inspire you, what kind of stories for which you have passion.

Then look at your story concepts, the entire list. If you don't have a list, put one together. Sit with each of your ideas. Which ones bubble up to the top as being the most interesting ones? Which ones feel the most like a movie?

Finally imagine you are standing at a fork-in-the-road: One path has a sign that reads Write What They're Buying, the other path has a sign that says Sell Them Your Dream.

Which path feels right to you? Which path pulls you in its direction?

You're not looking for the right choice or a wrong choice, rather you are looking for an honest choice: Which best reflects your instincts as a writer?

Hopefully one or the other path will speak to you. If not, don't worry. Follow Yogi Berra's advice: "When you come to a fork-in-the-road, take it."

Go down one or the other, and write something. That way, you will end up with something that has the potential to sell. Perhaps more importantly, you will learn about yourself as a writer.

How about you? Which type of writer are you? Which path will you take?

Next: The value of a spec script… even if it doesn't sell.

Go Into The Story

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